The Washington Legislature is looking to bolster funding for special education this session with two bills to adjust the formula used to direct state funding, each with a different approach.
Pandemic-era school closures resulted in measurable learning loss for students across the state. Learning from home proved to be less optimal than a focused classroom setting for many students, officials from the Central Valley School District said.
“It was a different style of learning that was harder to go as in-depth with your students over Zoom,” said Matthew Lambert, executive director of secondary education at Central Valley School District. “Even when they came back in person, some of those personal skills and social skills that were just so natural, then all of a sudden it wasn’t quite as natural.”
Learning loss from school closures was exacerbated for students with disabilities, leading the Legislature to prioritize special education funding this session.
“In children that have a disability, the things that we saw during COVID were just magnified,” said Eric Hoglund, executive director of elementary education at Central Valley School District.
One bill that passed the Senate and is now under consideration by a House of Representatives committee would alter the formula the state uses to determine how much funding districts receive for special education.
Special education is paid for with two sources of state funding: the basic education allocation, available to fund both general and special education, and a portion set aside expressly for special education. This portion is calculated by multiplying the basic education allocation with a figure determined by the Legislature. The bill seeks to increase that figure, increasing funding for special education by about 10% or 7%, depending on how much students receiving special education spend in general education classrooms.
Right now, the state caps funding based on the percentage of enrolled students receiving special education out of the total number of students. State funding is capped when 13.5% of the total student population receives special education. The Senate’s proposal would raise the cap to 15%.
In Central Valley School District, 16.2% of the total students receive special education services. In Spokane School District, it’s 17.6% of students.
A different bill passed by the House that a Senate Committee is now evaluating also seeks to increase the multiplier in the special education funding formula. Instead of a one-time increase, the multiplier would increase incrementally over a four-year period. After this phase-in, the multiplier would incur an approximate 5% increase, also varied slightly based on the time students receiving special education spend in general education classes.
The cap would also see incremental increases until the 2027 school year, when the excess special education funding from the state wouldn’t be limited.
Bill sponsor Rep. Gerry Pollet, D-Seattle, called the cap “unconscionable” and “unconstitutional.”
“There is no other civil rights class where we would say it’s OK to put a cap on how many children we provide support for,” Pollet said.
He also pointed out that by limiting funding, districts may be incentivized to evaluate students for special education less frequently so as not to exceed the 13.5% cap on state funding.
When special education services need funding to adequately serve students, districts look for money in other places, Central Valley School District officials said.
“When we have, let’s say, a heavily impacted child, and we don’t have the resources at our disposal to help them, we’re moving dollars from one place to another to make sure those children are covered,” Hoglund said.
Schools often direct levy money intended for building maintenance toward special education, testifiers at the Senate committee hearing said.
Statewide, districts are laying off staff members, said Jim Kowalkowski with the Rural Education Center. Central Valley School District faces short staffing issues in areas like transportation, nutrition services and in support staff.
“Maybe with additional levy dollars saved, (districts) could keep more staff,” Kowalkowski said.
The House’s bill would cost less out of the state’s education budget, at over $177 million from the 2023 biennium budget versus the Senate bill’s over $358 million price tag. In the next budget years, the cost of both bills would rise.
The Senate bill is scheduled for a vote in committee on Monday. The House bill has received a public hearing, but has not yet been scheduled for a vote in its committee.